No Politics as Usual in East Asia

Posted January 1, 2004

Categories: Articles, Asia

Taiwan and South Korea share a good deal in common. They both suffered under Japanese colonialism. They both built prosperous economies within the space of only a couple generations. They are both relatively new to democracy, having shrugged off authoritarian dictatorships within the last 15 years. They rely on U.S. weapons and military guarantees. And they both have very complex relations with their other, non-democratic cousins, mainland China and North Korea.

In the last two weeks, Korea and China shared something else in common. They experienced unusual political convulsions. In South Korea, a broad parliamentary alliance impeached progressive president Roh Moo-Hyun. In Taiwan, meanwhile, President Chen Shui-bian survived an assassination attempt to win an extremely narrow victory over his challengers. An unprecedented referendum on relations with mainland China, however, failed to gain sufficient votes to pass.

These two political convulsions have little to do with “immature” democratic institutions, though U.S. newspapers were quick to publish photos of fisticuffs in the Taiwanese and South Korean parliaments. The struggles taking place in Taipei and Seoul are not about physical violence. They reflect a more profound struggle in these two divided lands over national identity and national purpose.

In South Korea, Roh Moo-Hyun came to power a little over a year ago as the successor to Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-Jung. Roh was a labor lawyer with progressive credentials, a desire to continue an engagement policy with North Korea, and a commitment to root out corruption from the highest echelons of South Korean politics. He generated a great deal of support from South Koreans in their 30s who came of political age in the 1980s. This younger generation used the Internet and the institutions of civil society to sweep Roh into office.

The last year, however, has not been very good to Roh Moo-Hyun. Several former aides were indicted on charges of corruption, and several more are under suspicion. The economy was hit hard by the unraveling of the Agreed Framework with North Korea. Bush’s hardline stance toward North Korea undercut Roh’s major foreign policy initiative of engaging Pyongyang. And U.S. pressure on Roh to send Korean troops to help in the occupation of Iraq angered many of his traditional supporters. Roh’s own attempts to shake up the political elite led to the division of his own party, the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP). Undaunted, his supporters simply created their own new party, the Uri (Our) Party.

The conservatives in the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) have never forgiven Roh for his 2002 victory or his persistent attempts to sustain a dialogue with North Korea. Even as the United States increases the pressure on Pyongyang, the Roh administration has pushed forward with what promises to be the most ambitious North-South economic project yet. The Kaesong complex, located just over the DMZ in North Korea, will combine South Korean electricity and North Korean labor to create a manufacturing complex to compete against China and Vietnam. Roh Moo-Hyun’s former party, the MDP, has no beef with him on geopolitical questions. It simply wants to punish the upstart Uri party.

Judging Roh to be vulnerable, both the conservatives and the MDP jumped on the president when he announced that he would do everything within the law to help the Uri party win in the April 15 national elections. In Korea, presidents are not allowed to campaign, though previous presidents have bent the rules. Instead of apologizing to the electoral watchdog institution for this faux-pas, Roh apologized only to the nation. The parliament voted for impeachment on March 12.

It was probably the single stupidest thing the anti-Roh forces could have done. Tens of thousands of Roh supporters immediately poured into the streets of Seoul. According to most media polls, anti-impeachment sentiment continues to run above 70 percent. Support for Roh’s Uri party now stands around 50 percent, with only 15 percent supporting the GNP and a mere 5 percent backing the perfidious MDP. Fully one-third of those surveyed in a recent Dong-A Ilbo newspaper poll changed their minds after the impeachment vote. One of the largest movements of civil society, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, has called the impeachment a “parliamentary coup d’etat.” Internet-savvy Koreans are well on their way to creating their own to push politics beyond the impeachment and create a new groundswell of support for progressive policies.

The Taiwanese elections that took place on March 20, on the surface, concerned the political record of Chen Shui-bian, the first president of Taiwan from outside the Kuomintang (KMT), the party of Chiang Kai-Shek. Over the last four years, Chen presided over a profound democratization and, as critically, Taiwanization of Taiwanese society. Chen’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), encouraged citizens to think of themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, and offered political access for the first time to anyone other than the nationalists who fled China in the 1940s (i.e., the vast majority of the citizenry).

At the same time, Chen presided over a worsening of political relations with Beijing. The United States increased military ties with Taiwan; China increased its military presence across the Straits. The presidential elections were in part a referendum on Chen’s handling of cross-Straits relations, which put greater emphasis on independence and eschewed a “one state, two system” compromise a la Hong Kong. Complicating the elections was an actual referendum, Taiwan’s first, which asked voters whether they supported greater purchases of U.S. weaponry and/or the pursuit of closer ties with Beijing. Chen and the DPP hoped that the referendum would bring out the party’s supporters. Eight-seven percent of voters supported the referendum, but only 45 percent of eligible voters participated, just shy of the 50 percent threshold.

If it hadn’t been for the assassination attempt on Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu the day before the vote, the DPP would have probably failed as well. True, the DPP picked up more support than the last elections, which had been a three-way contest. But Taiwanese voters, while supportive of democratization and even Taiwanization, are less clear in their opinion about cross-Straits relations. The majority of Taiwanese favor the status quo, which means maintaining de facto independence for the immediate future while continuing to improve relations with Beijing. Many Taiwanese (as well as policymakers in Beijing and Washington) fear that Chen and the DPP want to push for de jure independence under the guise of further democratization.

Chen and the DPP are not simply battling Taiwanese preferences for the status quo. They’re up against economic realities. Despite the political freeze of the last four years, cross-Straits relations have continued to improve at an economic and social level. China is now the largest market for Taiwanese exports. Taiwanese investment into the Mainland is up to $30 billion. Taiwanese have set up 50,000 businesses in China. Some of the 500,000 Taiwanese residents in China have even established Taiwanese schools for their children.

The issue of economic engagement across fault lines raises some challenging questions. Taiwanese and South Korean businesses are eager to set up in China and North Korea less because of national pride than because of the lure of cheap labor. These businesses are resistant to independent unions and, indeed, are often fleeing them. Engagement for them means profits (with the exception of certain firms like South Korea’s Hyundai, which lost hundreds of millions of dollars in its tourism projects in the North). At the same time, economic ties between China and Taiwan and between the two Koreas represent a strong counterbalance to heightened military confrontation. Greater economic ties do not preclude the possibility of military conflict. But they are certainly more conducive to peace and stability than economic isolation.

At first glance the impeachment in South Korea and the elections in Taiwan concern political infighting. Beneath the surface, however, are very different visions of national identity. In South Korea, conservatives envision rapid unification through absorption of the North by the South and the maintenance of a very close military alliance with the United States. Roh Moo-Hyun’s renunciation of unification by absorption, his vision of a more cooperative future for the peninsula, and his call for greater equality in relations with the United States are so repugnant to the conservatives that they rushed blindly into the political miscalculation of impeachment.

South Korea is a homogenous society and few there disagree about what it means to be Korean: one people, one blood (tanil minjok). But there is still considerable disagreement about what it means to be South Korean, about how the relatively brief South Korean experience — of capitalist development, political democracy, and military alliance with the United States — has shaped a Korean identity that has been in the making for several thousand years. Roh offers one set of answers to these questions, his opponents quite another.

Taiwan is far from homogeneous. There are three major groups: indigenous peoples who are not Chinese (2 percent), ethnic Chinese who settled on the island prior to World War II (84 percent), and the Nationalists who arrived after the war (14 percent). Unlike South Korea, there is no consensus in Taiwan on what it means to be Taiwanese. After decades of authoritarian rule by the Nationalists, Taiwan now has democracy and a thriving civil society. The “national question” – and the island’s relationship to Beijing – can now be discussed and debated. Chen Shui-bian and his supporters are impatient for independence, want a more heavily armed military to defend their sovereignty, and don’t want to wait for China to “catch up” with democratic reforms. The rest of Taiwan is skeptical about this foreign policy vision – thus the closeness of the elections and the failure of the referendum.

Politics excite great passions in both Taiwan and South Korea. Just prior to the Taiwanese elections, two million citizens created a human chain from one end of the island to the other to support peace, protest China’s missile placements, and represent what the event’s organizer called the “people’s affirmation of Taiwan’s national identity.” In South Korea, hundreds of thousands of citizens have protested the impeachment in cities around the country. These political passions cannot be understood as simply an enthusiasm for democratic procedures such as elections or referendums or proper parliamentary process. This is not politics as usual because diplomatically isolated Taiwan and divided Korea are not usual countries. Politics in both Taipei and Seoul is intimately linked to core questions of national identity — and thus worth getting all fired up about.


ZNet, March 27, 2004

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